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2/23/2012
10:36 AM
F. Paul Wilson
F. Paul Wilson
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Cyber collaboration: Then

Wilson uses an exciting new technology called electronic mail to make the Faster Than Light Newsfeed on the nascent Sci-Fi Channel and several books and games happen.

F. Paul Wilson

As told by Repairman Jack...

Way back in the first installment I told you about Wilson's initial involvement with the Internet via the online service known as GEnie. He joined for the camaraderie of the other genre writers on board, sure, but he signed up for a more practical reason: access to email. He needed email because he was collaborating with Matt Costello on a project for the nascent Sci-Fi Channel (later renamed, perplexingly, Syfy).

In the summer of 1992 Wilson received a call from a USA Network executive named Bob Siegal saying they were launching the Sci-Fi Channel soon and wanted him involved. USA Network was based in Manhattan and looking for an SF writer who lived in the northeast. Their plan was to insert daily newscasts from 150 years in the future between their regular programming. Could he design that future? Wilson was all for it until Siegal told him they needed it completed and set to go in six weeks.

Big problem there. He needed to finish a book in time for the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair, and no way could he do both. He remembered shooting the bull with a writer named Matt Costello at various NECons--the small annual Rhode Island convention for writers and readers--and had been impressed with how quick and versatile he was. He'd also sensed that Costello had a work ethic similar to his own--which is, simply, sit down and do it. Plus he lived only an hour outside the city. So he turned down Siegal and gave him Costello's contact info.

A day or two later the grateful Matt called back and asked was he sure he didn't want it? How about they split the work? Wilson reconsidered and has never regretted it. The Sci-Fi Channel gig turned out to be one of the best of his career. He and Matt got along swimmingly. They had minds that worked on the same wavelength, plus the network paid them handsomely and did not interfere.

They worked their butts off that summer. Meetings in the city at the USA Network offices on Sixth Avenue, in coffee shops, in each other's kitchens, conference calls, and faxing--lots of faxing--between the Jersey Shore and Westchester County.

But faxing wasn't working. Both guys were writing on computers but the convenience of a word processor was negated by the limitations of the fax machine: it could deliver only hard copy. That meant editing by hand and faxing back. Cumbersome as all hell. FedExing floppy disks back and forth on a daily basis would be prohibitively expensive. What to do, what to do?

Matt Costello was the more wired of the two then--he was scripting an interactive CD-ROM called "The 7th Guest" for Trilobyte--and had heard of something called email. Not only were these electronic letters delivered almost instantaneously over the Internet, but digital attachments could hitchhike along--digital attachments like word-processor files. Yikes. Perfect.

They joined GEnie and began swapping files via email. Wilson gave up his beloved WordStar for WordPerfect for DOS to be compatible with Matt, but no biggy. Email provided a quantum leap in their writing process. By the end of the summer they delivered a future scenario detailing the sociopolitical economic technological status of the planet Earth and near space for the year 2142, including biographies of all world leaders and entertainment personalities, long and short story arcs, one shots, and even commercials. They'd laid out the arcs in narrative form and in a flow sheet that showed what was happening when and where throughout the first year on a month by month and week by week basis. USA Network was, quite frankly, blown away by their "bible." They offered the guys a retainer to stay on board.< Faster Than Light Newsfeed was born.

The Sci-Fi channel handed the bible to a screenwriter named Russ Firestone, who scripted 30-second and later 60-second spots that would play one per day multiple times, five days a week, with all five repeating on weekends. Every so often he'd call them to provide fillers for the feeds.

On Sept. 24, 1992, an FTL Newsfeed--their scenario, their characters, their format--launched the Sci-Fi Channel. Wilson and Costello watched from the launch party at Madison Square Garden.

In 1994 the network asked Wilson and Costello to take over the scripting duties for a fee they couldn't refuse. The deliverables were 65 one-minute scripts in two-column A-V format every 13 weeks--the equivalent of four hours and 20 minutes of script every year. Now they really needed that email.

They pretty much did whatever they wanted with the spots, and maybe drifted a little far out on occasion--like bringing in Professor Irwin Corey to explain the physics behind a new faster-than-light drive, not just once, but twice, because the press didn't understand him the first time. When one of the USA execs--none of whom seemed to know anything about SF--would ask, "Um, is this really science fiction?" Wilson and Costello would assure him that it was. After all, they were SF writers and who should know better?

With the success of the Costello-scripted interactive CD-ROM "The 7th Guest"--it went on to sell over two million copies and now there's even a version for iPhone and iPad--Matt began receiving more interactive offers than he could handle. He asked Wilson to help him out and they formed a partnership. Lots more email collaboration and thousands of air miles produced much vaporware but did lead to Disney's "Math Quest with Aladdin." They also collaborated on two novels, Mirage and Masque (the latter available now as an ebook under its original title, DNA Wars).

When the interactive market imploded along with the dot-com bubble, freelance script-and-design work dried up and Wilson and Costello drifted off to solo projects. Wilson shared credit with Steven Spruill on a thriller called Nightkill in 1997 but stayed solo thereafter.

Until now. He's into new collaborative projects, and man, have things changed.

Next time: Cyber-collaboration: Now.


Repairman Jack is the alter ego of F. PAUL WILSON, an award-winning New York Times bestselling author of more than 40 novels and many more short stories. His work, spanning horror, adventure, medical thrillers, science fiction, young adult, and virtually everything between, has been translated into 24 languages. Currently he is best known as creator of the urban mercenary Repairman Jack.
http://www.repairmanjack.com / Twitter: @fpaulwilson / Facebook: facebook.com/fpaul.wilson

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